by user Benjamin Kabak
With their loss to the Marlins tonight, the newly-sold Washington Nationals fell into last place in the National League East. To make matters worse, the Nats are averaging nearly 10,000 fewer fans per game this year than they did last year.
Clearly, the new owners have their work cut out for them in building a competitive and popular franchise for a city with a long history of baseball failure. I'd like to present five ideas for the new owners that would help them improve the fortunes of the struggling franchise.
1. Recapture the fans and get the team on TV
Right now, Washingtonians just don't care about the Nationals. For one, it's easy to go through a day without knowing they even exist. Maybe a bus or two rolls by with a Nats ad on the side. But there has been very little push for advertising over the last few months. The team's deformed bird mascot made a few appearances yesterdays at some of the high-traffic Metro stops during rush hour. But that's not enough. New Yorkers see ads for the Mets and Yankees everywhere. Bostonians live and breath Red Sox. The Angels have become one of the game's more popular teams through advertising. It's time to make the Nats just as ubiquitous.
In the same vein, the new owners have to get the Nats on TV in the DC Metropolitan area. This should be priority number one for the Lerners, and they should be working on it starting yesterday. It's embarrassing for baseball and an insult to the fans that the team in the Nation's Capital is not on TV every night.
2. Embrace RFK Stadium
Right now, the Nationals play in the Ugliest Stadium in Baseball. While it just beats out scenic Shea, RFK is a pretty bad place to see a game. It's in a parking lot far from the iconic parts of DC, and the stadium itself is falling apart. It's dark and dank and ready to be retired. But the Nationals are stuck for the rest of this season and all of the next one. The new owners have to embrace this stadium. Make going to the game an experience.
The first step there is to drop the price of parking and work with the WMATA to increase Metro services to the stadium. Run shuttle buses from downtown DC. Run more trains on game nights on the Red and Green lines as well as on the Blue and Orange lines. The Devil Rays are offering free parking this year. With a $12 fee, the Nats have some of the highest parking rates in the Majors. Lowering that price would do wonders for fan morale.
Next up is the food. Get rid of whoever's catering now. The food in RFK is beyond awful. The options are hot dogs and sausages, and even for ballpark food, it's hardly edible. Add some Southern flair to the food and bring in top-notch ballpark caterers. People should praise the food and not dump on it.
Fix the ticket lines. I'm going to my first Nats game of the season this weekend, but from all accounts, the ticket lines have been horrible. Fans arrive 30 minutes before game time and miss the first two innings while waiting outside. No one wants to miss baseball waiting outside the stadium to fork over money for a game.
3. Overhaul the front office
I'm sure Kasten will bring in his own General Manager, but Trader Jim has got to go. While his drunken escapades in Florida won't help his standing with baseball, his tenure in DC hasn't gone too smoothly. From the Alfonso Soriano debacle to the Cristian Guzman contract, his moves have generally not gone too well. When a team is run under financial constraints, a $16 million waste like Guzman does short-term and long-term harm. Kasten will bring in people who can implement his vision. Bowden shouldn't be one of them.
4. Draft well, build a farm system and look beyond the borders
The Nats need a strong 2006 draft to see returns on the field by the end of the decade. With more money, Dana Brown will put together a great team. But at the same time, the Nats need to look for players in overseas areas. If they can land a few nearly-ready Latin American or Asian players instead of relying on the junk heap players filling in the current roster, the team could see its fortunes improve.
Furthermore, as Stan Kasten knows, a good farm system is key to sustained success. The Nationals will build up a farm system that is currently ranked 24th in baseball by Baseball America.
5. Spend wisely
It's tough for a new ownership group to come in and throw money around. After doling out $450 million for the team, the Lerners may not want to throw another $90 million out the window for payroll next year. But they should. The new owners need to show that they are willing to spend to compete. They are in the same division as a few well-run teams that aren't afraid to spend - the Mets, the Braves, the Phillies - and one team loaded with young talent - the Marlins. In a city run by money, the Nationals should invest in a few key free agents next winter.
Thu 05/04/06, 5:55 pm EST